Hereford Cattle Society has become the first cattle society to work to prove its breed’s sustainable merits to the wider beef industry, retailers, food industry and the consumer.
The news comes during Great British Beef Week (23-30 April) and is a project connected to the UK Cattle Sustainability Platform and the European Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.
Hereford cattle are known for their ability to grow and finish off grass. With the environment becoming increasingly important for every stage of the beef supply chain, the society is seeking to cement some of the benefits of the breed.
Working with Dr Liz Genever, beef and sheep specialist, members are recording the efficiency of their breeding females and therefore environmental impact to confirm the benefits of Herefords when compared to industry averages. Nearly 2,000 cows are being assessed for cow fertility, calf survival and growth rates to weaning.
In addition, carbon audits are being carried out to gauge the carbon footprint across its membership and commercial systems utilising the breed. Soil organic matter levels are also being taken into account, and therefore carbon storage, and this information will be benchmarked against the industry to confirm the benefits Herefords bring to a system.
A review of genetic trends is being conducted with the aim of providing guidance for members who are performance recording on areas of focus to ensure the Hereford dam becomes even more suited to future beef production.
In conjunction with Dawn Meats, information is also being gathered from finishing suppliers who provide Hereford sired cattle for various retailers.
Phil Allman, chairman of Hereford Cattle Society, said: “The society is undertaking a number of projects to help the society pull all the evidence of sustainable production together and help producers move to the next level.
“The society’s council is acutely aware of the shift in perception of eating beef and the environmental connotations which are now attached to red meat.
“In any sector, whether food or other, if a brand is not addressing its sustainability credentials in some way, it will be left behind as consumers’ priorities change. As a society, we are not willing for that to happen to Hereford Beef and are pleased to be able to work with Dr Liz Genever to put some hard-and-fast facts behind what we has known about the Hereford breed for decades.”
He continued: “Sustainability is all about the planet but also profit and people. If we can prove Herefords and Hereford crosses are a more profitable animal due to an increased margin, this will give many producers the confidence they need to further invest in the breed. When it comes to people, the docile temperament of Herefords is undisputed, providing a safer working environment for stockmen and abattoirs. With the largest section of the herd book being for the poll strain, this also brings an added benefit in terms of health and safety, along with animal welfare, with dehorning not required.
“The Hereford is both prolific and efficient at turning forage into a high-quality source of protein, therefore bringing human health benefits due to a higher level of omega-3 than cattle fed on concentrates. As a natural grazing animal, the Hereford can also play an important role in carbon sequestration by utilising a mainly grass-based diet, helping to build soil fertility, capture CO2 and encourage wildlife.
“Whether accurate or not, the continual pressure from the UK media to eat less meat cannot be ignored. We are working towards positioning Hereford Beef as a sustainable option. If people are eating less beef, we want to make sure it is Hereford.”
Working on the project, Dr Liz Genever explains sustainable production requires social responsibility, economic viability and environmentally sound practices and urges producers to view sustainability as more than solely carbon footprint.
She explains: “Thinking wider than the UK, beef production is being associated with deforestation in South America to graze cattle or grow crops for cattle, feedlots, high water use, antibiotic growth promoters, methane belching and is thought to be one of the major causes of climate change. Alongside this is the highly publicised concerns about red meat consumption and health. The beef industry is being challenged by many people and organisations.”
To counter the growing concerns about beef, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef was established in 2010 and brings together a wide range of organisations to develop a common understanding. The European Roundtable of Sustainable Beef established targets around the four priority areas – environment (greenhouse gas emissions), animal medicines, animal health and welfare and farm management. The UK Cattle Sustainability Platform feeds into these organisations, which the Hereford Cattle Society sustainability project is aligned to.
Liz continued: “Within the UK, Hereford cattle are the most used breed within pasture-only systems and will play an important role in grazing systems that help damaged and depleted soils. This will sit alongside the need to reduce inputs, such as feed, fertiliser and fuel, to help systems be financially viable especially as the UK subsidy system evolves.
“These inputs are the biggest contributors to beef producers’ carbon footprints, particularly from methane from the animal itself, so their reduction needs to be the focus of future animal systems. Hereford cattle have a strong track record in these low input, high output systems and this needs to be highlighted to more people.
“The Hereford breed is in a very strong position to be a key part of sustainable beef production, with animals that can thrive on grass and forage systems that help to increase the carbon and water stored in soils. They can cope in systems with reduced inputs, which helps to make more financially viable businesses with improved wellbeing.
“Together with the society I look forward to bolstering the Hereford’s sustainability credentials as the project progresses.”
Phil concluded: “Hereford Cattle Society is just starting out on its journey to being synonymous with sustainability, but has ambitious plans.”